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City Talk: Key themes emerge from debate about Forsyth monument

In a recent column, I detailed some of the history of the Confederate monument in Forsyth Park. In Sunday’s paper, Dash Coleman reported further on the monument’s history and explored other important issues.

Less than two months have passed since Mayor Eddie DeLoach called on city officials to explore ways to “expand the story” of the Confederate monument, but several key themes have already emerged.

For starters, we should remember that Savannah’s Confederate monument was erected by grieving citizens, who began raising money in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. In other words, the memorial in Forsyth Park seems different in important ways from the many Confederate memorials that were erected long after the war, often as symbolic statements supporting racial segregation.

At the same time, while the monument in Forsyth might have been on the southern fringe of the city in 1879, it is now one of the city’s most prominent memorials. Forsyth Park is a favorite destination for both locals and tourists, and the sheer scale of the monument suggests greater importance than the other memorials on the Bull Street axis. What does that say to us today?

There hasn’t been much public discussion – at least not yet – about the busts of two Confederate officers that flank the larger memorial. Those statues were added decades later after being moved from a square to make room for another monument. The specificity of those memorials seems at odds with the funereal quality of the larger monument, which is dedicated simply to “the Confederate dead.”

Mayor DeLoach’s early statements about the memorial and the public reaction to them suggest that city officials might ultimately recommend adding elements to the monument, which doesn’t have a historical marker or any other explanatory text.

There is a broader backdrop to these discussions. Savannah has a number of monuments and important sites honoring black history, and there are laudable ongoing efforts to tell a more inclusive story of the city, but it seems clear that there is more work to be done – much more.

In 2014, Ron Stodghill wrote in the New York Times: “A visitor could easily spend a week sauntering along the city’s haunting boulevards and leave without a clue about the essential role Georgia’s oldest African-American community has played here.”

Many Savannahians were upset by some of the details in the lengthy article, but it’s hard to dismiss Stodghill’s thesis.

Solutions, however, are difficult, especially considering the cost of adding new monuments and maintaining old ones. As Eric Curl reported recently, we have 32 monuments that are “high priority” for repairs, including the Confederate memorial in Forsyth.

I will certainly return to some of these issues as the public discussion continues and concrete proposals are made.

City Talk appears every Sunday and Tuesday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, Ga. 31401.

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